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Seven Insights About Lists. Whaaat? Lists?

Lists can be found in search engine results, messaging applications, ancient stones, on your hand and almost everywhere. Why are the so successful?

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1. Visual Thinking

Danjo Paluska / Via Flickr: sixmilliondollardan

Lists distribute information spatially on a surface. This makes them easy to comprehend, since the reading process is directed through spatial elements such as bullets, line breaks or paragraphs.

Our »inner eye« allows us to connect list items one with another, or to separate items from each other. This combination or separation creates our thought. Crossing out list items is not only relief, it is a graphical form of structuring thought.

How is that relevant to me: Lists add a spatial quality to information, that supports understanding.

Tags: #visual thinking

2. Pieces

Screenshot / Via ranker.com

Lists split complex information into distinct pieces. This accommodates calculation, because algorithms – rules for calculation – work best across separated information pieces.

Programming languages work with lists a lot. Databases are complex, tabular lists. The Web’s basic language HTML is all about fragmenting information into lists.

How is that relevant to me: Unless you live completely offline, it simply is.

Tags: #algorithm, #data

3. Repetition

Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Via gph.is

Repetition is to be found in in lists and in play. Those who play do not seek to finish, rather to re-experience the feelings of joy associated with the repetition. Those who read a list, meet a list structure that repeats over and over with variance from paragraph to paragraph.

Circular repetition manages our expectations through tension that grows from foresight and deviation.

How is that relevant to me? Repetition makes positively sure that after reading each paragraph you can expect a »How is this relevant to me?« section.

Tags: #play, #repetition, #joy

4. Memory as of 3000 B.C.

Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 2000-1800 BC / Via cdli.ox.ac.uk

Lists have been with us since the beginning of writing itself, even before continuous text and the use of the alphabet. The Sumerians of Uruk have made lists using cuneiform characters as early as 3000 B.C. With lists they memorized ownership of cattle or crop for instance.

The list form was also used to collect names of rulers and years of their reign. Continuous text – as in the writing of history – only emerged subsequently, after those lists were developed into narratives.

How is that relevant to me: Lists were part of the invention of writing. Lists provide a form for memory.

Tags: #alphabet, #cuneiform, #history

5. On or off the List

House of Cards / Via gph.is

Lists are task oriented and processual. To-Do lists can be crossed out for each item that is done. You succeeded. Great job! FAQ-Lists can be easily scanned for relevant information. Irrelevant details can be left out from reading allowing for efficient content consumption.

Listicles can provide the reader with a rough overview on a topic. They may make a topical field that is new for a particular reader more comprehensible and accessible. Lists structure information. I wonder how to get off Frank Underwoods enemies’ list alive.

How is that relevant to me? Reading a list can be more efficient than reading continuous text.

Tags: #efficiency, #gettingthingsdone

6. Fill in the Fields

W. Oxberry / Via booktraces.org

What a great revelation for library indexing it was, when in late 18th century library catalogues no longer were produced as one continuous bound book, but as separate paper slips that eventually evolved into the card index. This is the history of growing formalization in eight steps:

1.) Real life events

2.) Written accounts of real life events

3.) List of distinctive issues derived from the written accounts

4.) Typographic markup (i.e. bold or italic) or spatial separation in lists

5.) Form with pre-defined separated fields to be filled with distinct values

6.) Data gets tabulated from list into a table

7.) Physical hole in the form works like an on/off bit and makes it machine readable

8.) Punched card.

How is that relevant to me? Today all data stored by computers undergo a process of normalization and formalization.

Tags: #form, #library index

7. On Top of the List

Screenshot / Via twitter.com

User interfaces use lists to signal hierarchy and succession. I recently heard this great story about a musician who video recorded himself using a smartphone. However, since newer Facebook posts appear on top of older ones, he developed the habit of re-posting the same video over and over, every three days. He has found a great way to circumvent the succession aspect of lists.

To stay on top of a list is equally important for this musician as is for Kim Kardashian or for the troll who posts »First!« in the comment section.

How is that relevant to me? You can subvert the hierarchic nature of lists.

Tags: #UI fail, #hack

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